Can Predictable Polls Lead to Unpredicted Consequences?
PART II: WHY ONE MIGHT WANT TO VOTE
That these elections will not be an explicit step towards democratic reform has been obvious well in advance. Even if there is not much cause for immediate celebration, there is a fact to bear in mind. The pre-election atmosphere in Burma might resemble a fictional plot from a dystopian novel, but the process of elections (fair or unfair, all encompassing or disenfranchising) is a better situation than no elections at all. The Economist’s latest article is titled “..slowly the army release its grip.” This loosening of control might be unintentional on the part of the current regime, but it appears inevitable. The 2008 constitution might provide the military with impunity from prosecution, but that was to be expected. What is important at this point is to examine the additional (although minimal) democratic space, emanating from the changing power structure, where the military will no longer remain the unchallenged executive power. The 14 regional parliaments that will be established as result of the elections will be a first instance since the inception of the Burmese state.
Like any other nation, the Burmese,from the Junta or local businessmen, would like to see their stagnant economy grow. Perhaps with the old guard retiring, the new generation will pay heed to the business communities in the country that understand the inter-relatedness between health reform, education, social welfare and development. The Myanmar Egress is one such initiative, corroborated by Burmese entrepreneurs and social workers, that focuses on nation building despite the political impasse that has plagued the country for years. They aim to empower civil society organizations in the country by training young Burmese in the fields of social entrepreneurship, economics, and media. What sets them apart from most other initiatives is that instead of challenging the legitimacy of the current administration, they aim to create change within the existing political framework. By engaging business communities, intellectual classes and Burmese youth, they hope to create ‘national development through capacity building.’
CONUNDRUM OF NO CHOICE
Political activists opposing elections have been sighted distributing ‘boycott vote’ pamphlets to civilians, urging them to exercise their ‘right not to vote’ – an action that could land them in jail for years. Although admirable and courageous, refraining from voting in elections does not appear a pragmatic or productive solution. Universal boycott will not be possible as many are being intimidated into voting. With USDP thugs ‘guarding’ the polling booths rigging will undoubtedly take place. The result will not be based on the number of voters who turn up on November 7th. If those opposing the regime do not cast their ballots, the Junta can more easily manipulate the results while conveniently pointing to the ineptitude of their citizens in the democratization process. The burden will then fall on those who ‘chose’ not to vote, thereby handing the power to the ruling elite. It is a tough choice to make and one riddled with double standards. You vote – you recognize the legitimacy of the election. You don not vote – you completely lose your political voice.
PREMISE AND PROMISE
The premise of elections and the promise of a ‘democratic process’ by the current leadership has inadvertently spawned calls from ASEAN, UN and the international community at large for immediate action on several fronts. They all demand (and in some cases mildly suggest) release of political prisoners, establishment of a war crimes tribunal and inclusion of ethnic communities in the political process. Although these issues have been glaring gaps in justice for a majority of Burmese since 1990 when the Junta took over, they have received a new breath of life in the ‘IR’ arena due to the impending elections. The hope amongst those not boycotting elections is that these issues will continue to receive much needed attention in the post election period. Also, those not boycotting elections are not necessarily agreeing with the manner in which they are being conducted. They are simply acknowledging that with or without the support of the masses, a green signal from the UN, or a pat on the back from neighboring countries, Than Shwe and his Junta colleagues will go ahead with their plans. And these plans will have a lasting impact – some of which could prove positive in the long term.
The months following November 7th will be much more crucial for the political landscape of Burma than the speculative cloud that has been looming over the country’s future ever since the announcement of elections.
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